This is important for our walk with God. Don’t get them confused!
Let’s get started.
The first kind of righteousness is alien or foreign to you. It is imputed or credited to you as a free gift. It doesn’t flow out of your own person or your hard work of righteous deeds.
Here’s a verse that expresses the difference between your working to get righteousness (or your wage) as opposed to getting righteousness credited (counted) or imputed to you as a free gift through faith without works.
4 Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due. 5 And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness (Rom. 4:4-5)
The first kind of righteousness is described in verse 5. It’s a free gift you get from believing in Christ.
Further, Christ takes your sin and unrighteousness on the cross, and he imputes his righteousness to you today, as a free, unearned, unmerited, undeserved gift.
That’s called the Blessed Exchange.
Now you wear this alien righteousness as a white robe, invisible to humans, but visible to God, as we see in the life of Joshua the high priest in Zechariah 3, who exchanged his dirty clothes (his sins) for God’s clean robe (God’s righteousness). Only after the exchange was Joshua charged to walk in obedience.
Righteousness Properly Our Own
That sequence of first-clothing-then-obedience leads us to talk about the second kind of righteousness. It properly belongs to you, but only in cooperation with or in working out of the free gift of credited or imputed righteousness. You show God’s free righteous gift to you by helping your neighbor.
This means they have a certain kind of righteousness. Jesus said the Pharisees have some righteousness in them (Matt. 5:20), though it fell short. My dad is another example. As far as I know, he didn’t experience saving grace until late in life. Before then, however, he walked with a lot of social and personal integrity–call it social righteousness. We should not deny what we see with our own eyes, though our righteousness won’t get us into heaven.
As for performing righteous deeds or good works, Martin Luther says (paraphrased): God does not need my good works; my neighbor needs them.
That statement means we cannot work our way into heaven. That comes by God’s free gift of righteousness that already places us in the heavenly realm where Christ is seated (Ephesian 1:3 and 2:6). Rather, we show forth the free gift of righteousness to our neighbor by behaving righteously in society—not self-righteously, but Christ-righteously. We let the Spirit work outwardly through our actions his inner, credited, free, unearned righteousness.
That’s life in the Spirit, which so many Grace Revolutionaries miss. They get so focused on the doctrine of righteousness and grace they forget about the Spirit living in them.
Here’s a verse that expresses life in the Spirit and the working out of social- or neighbor-centered righteousness.
For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking but of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. (Rom. 14:7).
“Eating and drinking” in this context means religious rituals. Life in the Spirit transcends ritual and religion, but it is expressed in community, with our neighbors.
Illustration: A billionaire deposits or credits (imputes) $10 million into your bank account, as a free gift. You did not earn or even deserve it. He gave it to you out of his boundless generosity and grace. You are a millionaire.
But what happens when you don’t spend it—even part of it? Then your millionaire status is only legal, but not practical; it’s theoretical and doctrinal, if you will, but not down-to-earth. Yet your neighbor stands in need of your free gift of money. So spend the billionaire’s free gift of money to help your neighbor; that’s your righteous deeds.
The miraculous news of the gospel of grace: God’s imputed or credited righteousness never runs out. It is fixed and eternal. You can’t spend too much of it.
Another illustration: the first kind of righteousness is the bridegroom saying to his new bride: “I am yours.” The voice of the bride or the second kind of righteousness replies: “I am yours.” Christ is the bridegroom; you’re the bride. He initiates; you respond.
It’s one of the many benefits of the Blessed Exchange.
The two kinds of righteousness can be summed up in the verbs am and do.
The first kind: ‘”By his grace I am the righteousness of God in Christ.”
The second kind: “By his grace I do his righteous deeds.”
Please don’t get them confused.
You never say, “by his grace I can do enough righteous deeds to become the righteousness of God in Christ.” You could never accomplish that goal.
Rather, you say, “by his grace I am the righteousness of God in Christ, and only then I am equipped to do righteous deeds.”
Only the first kind can lift you out of your guilt and sin and usher you into heaven after you die. After you receiving the first kind down here on earth, then and only then does the second kind move you in obedience to the Spirit to help your neighbor.
Let’s wrap this up.
So the two kinds of righteousness are, first, alien or foreign to you because it comes from God, and the second is properly yours and practical (worked out for your neighbor), but in cooperation with the first kind.
Both of them work simultaneously together in the healthy believer.
Here is the verse that describes your performance-based righteousness:
5 Moses writes this about the righteousness that is by the law: “The person who does these things will live by them.” (Rom 10:5, emphasis added)
It’a all about your doing and performing. Eventually, doing your own righteousness will wear out.
Here are the verses that describe God’s gift of righteousness–alien to you in your natural state. It’s Christ-centered and faith-centered (as opposed to works-centered or law-centered):
But the righteousness that is by faith says: “Do not say in your heart, ‘Who will ascend into heaven?’”(that is, to bring Christ down) 7 “or ‘Who will descend into the deep?’” (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead). 8 But what does it say? “The word is near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart,” that is, the message concerning faith that we proclaim: 9 If you declare with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. (Rom. 10:6-9, emphasis added)
Those verses say God’s righteousness comes from faith in Christ and confessing (speaking) that Jesus is Lord, even when you don’t feel like it. When you speak it, the heart will follow.
How does this post help me grow closer to Jesus?
Practical tip for living: next time you go on a “guilt trip” or feel self-condemned in your inner being or have a nagging guilt hanging over you about something you can’t put your finger on, say these words out loud: “I am the righteousness of God in Christ.” You are confessing the first kind of righteousness, which is credited to your account as a free gift. You are not confessing the second kind (“I know I can do better own by my own righteous acts!”).
Say the words of the first kind over and over, and you’ll discover the guilt will soon lift off of you. You should say them after you sin–even while you sin. That will break your long-standing bad habit.
Source: Martin Luther’s Two Kinds of Righteousness essay or sermon, though the money illustration, imperfect as it is, is mine (come to think of it, I may have heard it on TV or somewhere else).
Written by James Malcolm